I don’t say the shema before I go to bed and after I wake up. I only go to temple on shabbat because I work there. I don’t wear a kippah on my head, except for the high holidays. I’m not religious, nor spiritual. Actually, up until last summer I had been someone who saw “Jew” as a meaningless label.
Most of the people I knew celebrated Christmas, went to CCD and had crosses on their necks. I felt like the odd-one-out. This, especially at a younger age, was not something I wanted to deal with. I actually remember my older brother asking my parents if we could celebrate Christmas instead of Hanukkah! That probably didn’t make them, both Jewish, too happy. My brothers and I simply didn’t feel like we belonged in the Jewish community. Religion isn’t “in” with today’s teenagers.
Last summer my view on Judaism took a 180° turn. I’m sure you’ve heard of the Y2I program. It’s a fully subsidized program designed to make Jewish kids “stay Jewish, marry Jewish, and raise their own children Jewish.” To my parents, it probably sounded like a godsend for their prideless children. To me, I thought the trip was going to make me grow payot and wear long black clothing. Let’s just say I wasn’t too excited.
When we first grouped up in Israel, I started to look at everyone in the same blue shirts and lanyards we all wore (not long black clothing!), knowing that each of us had celebrated Hanukkah, hosted a Passover Seder, and had a bar or bat mitzvah. My first thought, word for word, was: “I don’t like this. I don’t feel special.” It sounds like a childish thing to say – which it is – but it’s what I thought. Being Jewish was, as I saw it, the one unique thing about me. Some people have green eyes, some are from another country, some have an identical twin… I was Jewish.
But, it didn’t take long for me to feel part of a community, rather than a brick in the wall. Everyone became a sort of long lost friend to each other, as, with each other, we finally felt like we belonged. Being in the Jewish state only intensified those feelings. Walking around cities, we knew that the 23-year-old impatiently waiting for her coffee was Jewish and just like us. We knew that the kid throwing himself on the sidewalk and screaming hysterically (what a little brat!) was Jewish and just like us. We knew that the middle aged man speed-walking in his suit, clearly late for some meeting, was Jewish and just like us. Along with the food, the warmth, and the beauty of the country, I noticed that I wanted people to know I was a Jew.
Religion in general is easing up on following firm rules and more focused on how the individual chooses to see it. Trying to stop this change is impossible in our progressive world. I call myself a “secular Jew” now: I considered those words oxymorons in the past. What matters is preserving Jewish traditions and having pride in the Jewish ethnicity. We have a brilliant cultural and ancestral history. Why would anyone want to renounce that? Have pride!
Jacob Keller will be a senior at Marblehead High School in the fall.